Sun | Oct 22, 2017

Civil-society groups more transparent than you think

Published:Sunday | May 24, 2015 | 12:00 AMHorace Levy
Horace Levy – an advocate for the growing role of civil-society groups.
Government MP Raymond Pryce has pressed for closer legislative scrutiny to be paid to civil-society groups.
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Bruce Golding's article 'Civil society's role in governance' (Sunday Gleaner, May 10, 2015) frames very clearly the participatory paradigm involving civil society that is now replacing the purely representational. Although, as he observes, the political parties have not caught up with the new paradigm, even as he asks some prickly questions, Mr Golding at the same time asserts his support for the view that "much can be accomplished by 'the state letting go its traditional role of sole authority and sharing it with citizens'". I am very happy to hear this from him.

The questions Mr Golding goes on, however, to raise are "how that sharing is to be done and how those citizens with whom it is to be shared are to be chosen". He is correct in saying that I have not addressed these questions. Appropriately, he has also brought forward in this connection Raymond Pryce's motion in the House. Mr Pryce had "proposed legislation to regulate 'civil-society groups', ... citing the danger of 'tainted sources of funds or hidden agendas'".

While Mr Golding expresses himself as not being in favour of "statutory rules governing the operation of lobby groups", the concern reflected in Mr Pryce's motion is what he urges not be disregarded. The concern, as Mr Golding sees it, is for openness and transparency on the part of civil-society organisations (CSOs).

He writes: "This 'formalisation' [viz. of the status of every CSO] cannot be imposed by government, but the legitimacy and represent-ativeness of civil-society groups would be greatly enhanced if they imposed it on themselves and, by so doing, establish standards by which each and every one could be evaluated." Going further, Mr Golding calls on the Jamaica Civil Society Coalition (JCSC) to "develop a framework for the accreditation of civil-society groups, establishing minimum standards".

 

INDIVIDUAL MATTER

 

Now while the JCSC entirely agrees that CSOs should impose openness and transparency on themselves, this at present would have to be an individual matter. The accreditation framework task Mr Golding sets the coalition is not one to be lightly taken on. The coalition made the mistake, soon after settling its own standards (of gender equality, democracy, non-discrimination, transparency, commitment to protection of the natural environment, and personal integrity) and legal status, of inviting trade unions, churches and parish development committees to become its members.

Presumptuous is how this could have been seen and perhaps was. Those entities were much older and better established, representing very sizable and important segments of civil society. It was alliances, ad-hoc issue-focused or in a standing forum, that should have been and still can be sought. For all its uniqueness, the coalition has always explicitly rejected the notion that it represents the whole of civil society. Civil society is too broad, diverse and creatively evolving to be brought under a single roof.

It is not, however, the 'big boys' of civil society (trade unions, etc.) for whose legitimacy and representativeness assurance is being sought by Pryce and Golding. It is the small non-governmental organisations (NGOs) with active members at most of a few hundred and often fewer than 30 or 20, which, nonetheless, claim, without evident 'proof', to be speaking for many more and calling for a 'voice' in decision making. What is to guide a government's choice, they ask.

Here a few basic facts would be relevant, even though Mr Golding would be well aware of them. First, the most prominent NGOs are usually companies limited by liability or by guarantee. The Companies Office has their data, available to any member of the public. Second, these NGOs have annual general meetings which, by law, are announced in the press and are open to the public. This was the case very recently with Jamaicans for Justice, whose audited accounts, made available at its AGM, were cited in The Gleaner the following day. As for "tainted sources of funding", the fact is that governments get funding from some of the very same international sources as many NGOs.

Third, nowadays any entity that opens its mouth publicly can promptly be googled and its 'vital' information read online. Also,

the beginnings of a 'registry', if that is what some of those in Government want, can be found in USAID/COMET's Directory of Non-Governmental and Community Based Organi-sations, Associations and Social Net Programmes (Second edition - July 2010).

Fourth, it is not the small number of votes an NGO can muster (like the non-existent battalions of Hitler's critic) that should count but the good sense of the position it is urging, the rationality of its argument (like the moral force that stood up to Hitler and ultimately overcame him). This is what should determine the acceptability of any entity to a government. It is what will counter the danger that higher class, race or social status will create an 'elite' NGO caste and distort or wrongly influence a government's choice of partners at the decision-making table.

 

FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE

 

This brings me finally to what may be a fundamental difference of perspective between Mr Golding and civil society. He writes: "In the absence of some procedure to validate the 'representativeness' of these civil-society groups, it is the government that must ultimately determine which groups are to be invited to participate at the decision-making table ... . And it is the government that must ultimately be held accountable for the decisions that they participate in making."

While choice of specific civil-society entities is indeed the government's alone, since its civil-society and private-sector partners are 'stuck' at any given moment with the elected government, accountability is not the government's alone. From the civil-society perspective, governance is viewed as a tripartite undertaking in which all partners (government, private sector and civil society) are equally responsible for one another, so much so that come the next election, civil society and private sector will choose what government they want.

Mr Golding may be exaggerating, in other words, a government's responsibility to choose. Civil society itself also has that responsibility - of who it wants to speak for it. How do we know this? Often enough there are polls that will tell a government. Sometimes it is by reading the 'signs' in the media. The media play an extremely important and pivotal role in this. They are a watchdog over all sectors.

The fundamental point, though, is for a government and a people to come to understand that the new post-Marxist (political economy), postmodern (omni-directing state) paradigm is no longer 'government', government deciding everything. It is 'governance', from the outset a world of joint decision-making, where partners accept one another and are equally responsible for and accountable to one another.

- Horace Levy is a human-rights campaigner. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and halpeace.levy78@gmail.com.